14 September 2020

The Atomic Dale; or, The Mounties Mess Up?

Dale of the Mounted: Atomic Plot
Joe Holliday
Toronto: Allen, [1959]
158 pages

The ninth in the twelve-volume Dale of the Mounted series, Atomic Plot is a novel I'd long wanted to read, but stubbornness stood in my way. For years, I watched copies being bought and sold online, all the while convinced I'd stumble upon one at a garage sale or thrift store.

I scored Atlantic Assignment, my first Dale, at a Friends of the St Marys Public Library book sale. Dale of the Mounted in the Northwest was found at a yard sale ten minutes from our home. I can't remember how I came to own Dale of the Mounted in Newfoundland. All that effort, all that searching, and yet Atomic Plot remained elusive.

Then came this generous gift from Chris Otto of Papergreat.

Dale of the Mounted: Atlantic Assignment is one the most amusing novels I've ever read. I enjoyed it so much that I reworked my original review for inclusion in The Dusty Bookcase book. Rereading those reviews today, after Atomic Plot, has me wondering whether I wasn't too harsh on the mountie.

Hear me out.

Dale of the Mounted: Atomic Plot opens at Ottawa's Uplands Airport – now Macdonald-Cartier International – where Constable Dale Thompson awaits the arrival of Doctor Sachi Rami, "a man learned in physics, a man whose knowledge the atomic sciences made him one of the leading figures in the Far East field of atomic energy." A Pakistani (Holliday refers to his nationality as "Pakistan"), Rami is travelling from his home country so that he might study the nuclear reactors at Chalk River Laboratories. Dale's assignment is to protect the doctor and his travelling party while they're in the country. He's been informed, by the Deputy Commissioner no less, that "certain fanatical, political groups in India" look to prevent Rami from taking this "atomic knowledge" back to Pakistan.

Rami arrives on a Trans-Canada Air Lines Viscount, accompanied by an imposing Sikh bodyguard, and a young secretary named Kelomé. As he disembarks, the doctor is attacked by a fellow passenger. The bodyguard takes action, throwing the assailant off the stairway and onto the tarmac. Dale rushes Rami and his party into an awaiting limousine and they head off to a suite that has been reserved at the Château Laurier. From there, the constable phones RCMP headquarters to report the incident:
The Deputy Commissioner finally came on the telephone. His instructions were, as usual, short and to the point. "I want you to make arrangements to be with Doctor Sachi Rami at all times. I understand he has some sort of Sikh bodyguard with him, but I want you to be personally responsible for him!" 
Let us pause to consider:

The RCMP has received intelligence that a group of Indian fanatics look to target a prominent Pakistani scientist on Canadian soil. The threat is taken so seriously that the Deputy Commissioner is personally involved, and yet he assigns just one member of the force to provide security for the scientist and his companions. That man, Constable Dale Thompson, holds the lowest rank in the RCMP. When told of the thwarted attack at the airport, the Deputy Commission does nothing more than repeat his original instructions. No additional security is provided.

And now, consider this:

The following afternoon, a Pakistan High Commission limousine arrives to transport Rami and his party to Rockcliffe, where they are to watch the famous RCMP Musical Ride. The chauffeur, Dale has been told, knows the area well, and yet – curiously – needs directions. On the drive back, Dale notices that they're being followed by an old Pontiac. This doesn't prevent him from directing the chauffeur to Nepean Point, so that the foreign visitors can admire the view. The Pontiac follows the limo into the park, but Dale dismisses this as a coincidence. There's a sudden flurry of activity as the chauffeur points the limo to the river and leaps from the vehicle. Dale grabs the wheel. The Pontiac rams their car, picks up the chauffeur, and takes off. Rami and company receive minor injuries. It's later discovered that the actual High Commission chauffeur had lost the limo in a carjacking.

So, where are we now?

There have been two assassination attempts in the first twenty-four hours, and Dale was present for both. He thought nothing about the High Commission chauffeur's ignorance, and wasn't concerned about the Pontiac. The Deputy Commissioner doesn't remove Dale from the case, nor does he assign additional members of the force. It's off to Chalk River!

Chalk River Laboratories in 1958
Things slow down at this point so as to familiarize the reader with Chalk River Laboratories, the "famed Colombo Plan," and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. Eight pages are devoted to a high school-level physics lecture delivered to visiting students from "Ottawa University." Dozens more pages are sacrificed to the nature of the atom, descriptions of Chalk River's various reactors, a Van der Graaff generator, the various vehicles owed by the facility, living accommodations offered to employees of AECL, and the municipal status of nearby Deep River. Mixed into all this are dribs and drabs of plot and plotting, as when copper medallions turn up in the doctor's room and those of his companions. A panicked Rami hands his over to Dale:

Now, one-third of the way through my second Dale of the Mounted book, I'd come to know the man. It was for this reason that it came as no surprise that the constable failed to inform the Deputy Commissioner of this turn of events. Dale rarely checks in – though, to be fair, no one at RCMP headquarters expects him to do so.

Days pass.

Dale notices that three Indian atomic scientists are also visiting Chalk River. Quite by chance, he discovers that Kelomé, Dr Rami's secretary, is secretly communicating with the trio. Next, a shipment of uranium rods is found to be faulty, and the truck returning them to the manufacturer is hijacked. A second truck arrives carrying the very same rods. The driver is held. Fingerprints are sent to the RCMP in Ottawa, where it's discovered that he's the owner of the Pontiac used to ram the limousine at Nepean Point.

Do the RCMP send more officers to Chalk River?

They do not.

The truck driver is killed, and two guards are injured, when the car in which they are travelling is forced off the road by another carrying the three Indian scientists.

Dale encourages the trio's release:

Dale uses the very same wait-and-see tactic in Atlantic Assignment – which, I remind, is an earlier adventure – resulting in the escape of a saboteur, the kidnappings of two servicemen (one of whom is left blind), the loss of two Royal Canadian Navy Grumman Avengers, and the near destruction of HMCS Bonaventure.

Despite Dale's history, the Deputy Commissioner agrees to the plan, adding that two more constables will be assigned in the case. Unfortunately, they never arrive. Did the Deputy Commissioner forget? Did Joe Holliday? Either way, things go very badly... after several pages devoted to the Betameter, sodium 24, and cobalt-60. Somewhere in the mix, we learn that the man who had attacked Rami at Uplands Airport escaped RCMP custody, only to be shot dead by his compatriots.

At long last, the Indian scientists, who we now know to be fanatics, attack as Dale, Rami, the bodyguard, and Kelomé are watching the installation of new uranium rods in the NRX reactor. What follows doesn't make much sense. Keith Ward's jacket illustration reflects its weakness in that five more figures should feature. Confusion often accompanies violence, but here the fault lies in Holliday's inability to keep track of his characters. Any description of the action would be pointless; it is the outcome that matters:
  • Kelomé has been revealed as one of the Indian fanatics;
  • an employee has suffered a blow to the head and a six-foot fall;
  • a broken uranium rod has caused a deadly build-up of radiation;
  • two of the Indian fanatics died of gunshot wounds;
  • the third Indian fanatic stole a truck, only to die in a crash;
  • the NRX reactor has to be shut down for several months. 
It was Kelomé who shot and killed the two Indians because – I'm guessing – she was angry that the attack didn't come off exactly as planned. Her motivation isn't clear.

And what of the fanatics? Was their real goal to destroy the reactor? Why didn't Kelomé shoot Rami when she had the chance? Why didn't her fellow fanatics? What were they all about, anyway? "These [Indian] fanatics are utterly opposed to atomic energy and want no part of this knowledge to come to their country," the Deputy Commissioner says when handing Dale the assignment; yet, Kelomé aside, each of the fanatics involved were atomic scientists.

In the closing pages, the reader learns that Kelomé herself is expected to suffer an agonizing death as ta result of her exposure to the broken uranium rod... and so, everything wraps up nicely:
Dale and the RCMP, satisfied that the danger to the Pakistan doctor and his party was now over, decided there was no further need for Dale to act as daily bodyguard.
I wouldn't have thought that fanatical groups give up so easily – but then, what do I know about security, law enforcement, and intelligence?

For that matter, what do Dale and the RCMP?

Editorial note: Everything I've read about the Khaksar Movement suggests it is grossly mischaracterized by Holliday.

Favourite passage: It should come as no surprise that Dale's main contact at Chalk River Laboratories isn't its Chief of Security, but a public relations man named Clyde Karnell. After the novel's climax, the character exits the book thusly:
"Boy! It's going to be dull when you leave Chalk and Deep River. We haven't had that much excitement since the NRX blew its stack in 1952! Well! see [sic] you tomorrow1" He put on his jacket and departed.
Here the public relations man is referencing an event that is generally considered the first serious accident involving a nuclear reactor. It is rated 5 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. For the sake of comparison, Three Mile Island shares the very same rating.

Mea culpa: I've broken a New Year's resolution.

Object and Access: A slim volume bound in burgundy boards with blue text. Dale of the Mounted: Atomic Plot enjoyed one printing with Thomas Allen. An American edition was published in 1959 by Pennington Press.

One copy of the Pennington edition is listed for sale online. Priced at US$8.18, is it a bargain? It has no dust jacket. A Good+ (w/ Good dust jacket) copy of the Allen edition is on offer from an Edmonton bookseller. Price C$13.00. Needless to say, this is the one to purchase.

Library and Archives Canada and seven of our academic libraries have copies.

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12 September 2020

A Tom Ardies Cover Cavalcade

Tom Ardies
New York: Doubleday, 1973
A follow-up to my most recent CNQ review

In Tom Ardies' first novel, Their Man in the White House, hero Charlie Sparrow fails to thwart the Russians from installing a pawn as President of the United States. In Sparrow's last adventure, Pandemic, he tries to prevent a worldwide epidemic. I haven't read the latter, so have no idea whether he succeeds.

Here's hoping.

Their Man in the White House has an unusual publishing history. The first edition, from McClelland & Stewart, was published in September 1971. Macmillan followed a week or two later with the first UK edition. Two years later, a cheap Panther paperback hit the racks. And yet, this most American of thrillers has never been published the United States.

Of the three editions, I think Justin Todd's McClelland & Stewart cover is the best. True, the White House isn't white, but I like to think the artist, an Englishman, made it brown in recognition of the events of 24 August 1814, the day his countrymen and mine set Washington alight. How else to explain the plumes of smoke?

The Macmillan edition errs in its depiction of President Davis Marshall and his daughter Lisa, both of whom are described in the novel as being extremely attractive. 

The Panther edition is elusive, but I've managed a small screen capture:

More Robert E. Howard than Cold War thriller, wouldn't you say?

The best Ardies cover ever is Fawcett's paperback edition of his second novel This Suitcase is Going to Explode. Published in 1976, it features a hologram:

Unusual for the time, this detail gives some idea of the effect:

So much better than the Hachette French translation, don't you think?

The cover of Une Valise qui explose is every bit as lazy as McClelland & Stewart's nonsensical Kosygin is Coming (1974).

A thriller set in Vancouver, Kosygin is Coming is Ardies' biggest selling novel. Angus & Robinson's UK first edition makes the city look like Manhattan. 

As far as I've been able to determine, the Vancouver Police Department has never flown helicopters with pontoons. Having lived more than a decade in Vancouver, I can attest that its street lights aren't nearly so low to the ground.

Kosygin is Coming isn't much of a title; I much prefer Russian Roulette, the nonsensical title given to the 1975 screen adaptation starring George Segal. PaperJacks, publisher of some of the ugliest paperbacks this country has ever seen, really rose to the occasion with the movie tie-in.

However did PeperJacks manage it? By using the lobby poster, of course.

For all their flaws, the most interesting Tom Ardies covers are the earliest. Kosygin is Coming was followed by In a Lady's Service (1976), Palm Springs (1978)...

...then a sixteen year silence. Tom Ardies returned in with Balboa Firefly, published under the nom de plume "Jack Trolley."

Balboa Firefly
New York: Carroll & Graf, 1974

In the interim, covers had become cheaper to produce and a whole lot less imaginative. Going by the reviews, the novels Ardies wrote as Trolley are his very best. I'm ashamed to admit I haven't read so much as one. His most recent, La Jolla Spendrift, was published in 1998.  

Tom Ardies is now in his ninetieth year. Dare I hope for more?

I dare.

01 September 2020

A Red in the White House?

Their Man in the White House
Tom Ardies
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1971
198 pages 
One of the wealthiest men in the United States is running for the presidency, and intelligence agencies are concerned because Russian operatives are exercising influence. Do they have something on him? Does blackmail play a part? And what are we to make of the peculiar relationship between the candidate and his blonde adult daughter?
So begins my review, just published online at Canadian Notes & Queries.

A novel for our times, don't you think?

You can read it here:
Cold War, Warm Bed
Do not judge this book by its cover.

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21 August 2020

In Search of Margerie Scott

The Windsor Daily Star, 10 April 1951

Until this year, I'd never heard of Margerie Scott. Her name doesn't appear in The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature, or the Enyclopedia of Canadian Literature. Three of her five novels were published by McClelland & Stewart – once "The Canadian Publisher" – but I'd never come across copies. My introduction came by way of an American, Scott Thompson of Furrowed Middlebrow, who mentioned her in this February post. "It's possible that Margerie Scott belongs on a Canadian women writers list," writes Mr Thompson.

Margerie Scott was born in 1897 at Leeds. If her publishers' author bios are correct, she received some part of her education in Belgium. Edith Margery Waite was her name at birth; "Scott" was added when she married Canadian Hubert Scott. According to the author, she lived in Canada ten years between the World Wars. During the second conflict, she served as chief billeting officer for the London borough of Chelsea. When the fighting stopped, she worked briefly for the Entertainments National Service Association before returning to Canada for another decade.

Throughout both Canadian stints, Windsor served as her home. She threw herself into society, volunteerism, and amateur theatre. Margerie Scott's name appears in nearly two hundred editions of the Border Cities Star and Windsor Daily Star, this from the 18 September 1956 edition of the latter being an example:

Scott also wrote theatre, film, and book reviews for the Star. My critique of Andre Langévin's Dust Over the City is at odds with hers.

The Windsor Daily Star
24 Sept 1955
I'm not sure we would have much agreed on things literary. In her lecture "The Short Story and Its Place in Modern Letters," covered in the Border Cities Star (22 September 1931), Margerie Scott described O. Henry and Rudyard Kipling as the greatest short story writers of the day. An Anderson, Fitzgerald, and Mansfield man, I take issue.

And then there's this:
Until recent years, the short story has been somewhat despised [emphasis mine]. The novel was the real work. But today, people are giving most of their time to perfecting the technique of the short story, which includes concise presentation of an idea, with an introduction, climax and completion.
More often than not, the Border City Star and Windsor Daily Star refer to Margery Scott as a short story writer. I've managed to track down twenty, most of which were published in long-dead magazines like Breezy Stories, Young Realistic Stories, Britannia and Eve, and The Canadian. One source records that she is the same E.M. Scott who  contributed "The Voyage to Kleptonia" to the October 1928 edition of Amazing Stories.

I don't quite doubt it.

Because her stories were never collected, I think of Margery Scott as a novelist. Life Begins for Father (1939), her debut, appears to have been written off; it received no mention in her subsequent books. In his surprisingly long 22 April 1939 Windsor Daily Star review, "Windsorite Resembles Dad in Novel," critic Angus Munro praises the novel as a "first class story of life in modern London."

My own first book dealt with people who inspired characters in Canadian literature, so you can understand my interest in this paragraph:

A Yorkshireman himself, Tom Waite emigrated to Canada in 1927, settling in Windsor. His profile in the January 1928 edition of Canadian Golfer is quite impressive.

There's more to be learned about Margery Scott. I've only started digging.

For now, the question remains: Does Margerie Scott belong on a Canadian women writers list?

I would say so. How about you?

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14 August 2020

They Fell in Love With the Actress

The Darling Illusion
Margerie Scott
London: Davies, 1954
246 pages

Olivia Thompson's dead body lies in a slowly growing pool of blood, an apron belonging to her housekeeper, Mrs Baker, covering the head. Looking down, Inspector of Detectives John Sims believes the death a suicide, but Doctor Jordan Plant, the coroner, suggests otherwise: "I've been thinking—John, have you ever known a woman to shoot herself in the face?"

Olivia's final days favour the doctor's opinion. A young actress who had spent much of the Second World War in London, she'd returned to her Canadian hometown only four days earlier. In the short time between arrival and death, Olivia had purchased and moved into her childhood home. She'd hired Mrs Baker, ordered new furniture, and had started in on plans to renovate. No, nothing speaks to suicide, which made this reader question the inspector's rush to judgement. I didn't know what to think of the coroner, who has this to say about the murderer: "It's more likely to be a woman than a man to do a thing like that to another woman."

Is it? I honestly have no idea.

Save the housekeeper, Olivia had no contact with anyone except Louise Brand, Edith Temple, and Mary Anne Nesbit, each of whom had visited in the days leading to her death. Names from Olivia's past, they all have reasons to hate her. The novel's structure, coupled with Dr Plant's conviction, encourages the expectation that one of these women did the bloody deed. But which one?

Don't look to Doctor Jordan Plant or Inspector John Sims for the answer, they feature only in the first of the novel's five sections. "Louise," the second section, serves to introduce a living Olivia and her family. Mother Meg, was a music hall performer in the Old Country. Father Tom was a smitten medical student, disowned over his choice of mate. Together Meg and Tom emigrated to a small Canadian city (read: Windsor), where they raised their children, Olivia and Gerry, and earned a reputation as a couple of carefree oddballs.

But what of Louise? Though this is her section, she features hardly at all. It's instead given over to Reg Barnes. The son of a rumrunner who made a fortune during American prohibition, he's expected to marry pretty, buxom blonde Louise Williams, a member of a prominent family that had achieved its riches in the very same manner. The Barneses and Williamses have money and pretense, but Reg is attracted to Meg and Tom's way of life... and their daughter. On the eve of the announcement of his engagement to Louise – invitations are back from the printer – he asks Olivia to marry him. She declines, Reg marries Louise, and in the section's climax, calls out Olivia's name on his wedding night.

"Edith," the novel's second section is named for Edith Temple. A frigid widow with a fetish for cleanliness, she'd once married a younger man, and had endured sex until pregnant. Her unfortunate husband was mercifully shot to death whilst running rum to thirsty Americans. Edith gave birth to a son, Jack, whom she raised with her cold, cold heart. It's no wonder that he's drawn to Meg and Tom's warm, loving home. Like Reg, he develops a thing for Olivia. Things take a turn when Jack learns of Olivia's plans to study theatre in London. He pleads with her to stay, is met with derision, and kills himself.

Though only sixty pages in length, "Mary Anne" may be worthy of a paper. Historians will find interest in its portrait of a family, Meg and Tom's, in wartime London, but the real value comes in its depiction of homosexuality and attitudes towards same. We begin in Canada. Mary Anne Nesbit and younger brother Bill are orphaned in their early teens. Against all odds, with the use of an otherwise useless aunt, they manage to maintain their independence. When comes the war, Bill is sent to fight overseas. Mary Anne joins the Canadian Red Cross so as to be closer to her brother. On leave, Bill visits Meg and Tom, now living in London, and surprises everyone by proposing to Olivia. She accepts, only to frustrate her betrothed by deferring the wedding for the stage. Bill goes on a bender, ending up in a King's Road pub. A man named Christopher Bentley sidles up to him at the bar and, when Bill gets too drunk to stand, takes him back to his flat. From this point on, despite initial "self disgust" on Bill's part, he and Christopher become a couple.

Mary Anne cannot accept her bother's new relationship, as evidenced in this exchange:
"It's your fault, " Mary Anne jumped up and stood facing Olivia, her face working, her hands balled into fists. "I didn't want him to marry you because I knew you'd never make him happy; I know as much about you as you know about me, and I know you'e selfish and cruel and always have been, but you did get engaged to Bill and you should have kept your promise instead of making him so miserable that he went off and got drunk and took up with... this..." she paused, thinking, and Olivia said with deadly sweetness:
     "Is 'pansy' the word you're looking for?"
Citing this passage out of context is deceiving; Olivia can be mean, but here she's defending Bill. His relationship with Christopher is not only accepted, but embraced by Meg, Tom, Olivia, their upstairs neighbour... really, everyone except his sister.

Olivia's defence of Bill is made more interesting in that it is so uncharacteristic. She's depicted as a dislikable, selfish, self-centred, uncaring woman whose only desire is stardom on the stage. In this she's supported by her parents. Meg and Ted's return to England has nearly everything to do with helping Olivia to achieve her dreams, though they'd be quick to point out that it also has something to do with the overseas wartime service of their son Gerry.

Remember Gerry?

The male characters in The Darling Illusion serve no purpose other than to propel the plot. Ted is nothing more than the most adoring of husbands, happily supporting his wife's whims, including her sudden decision to return to England. Gerry, at best the ghost of a character, provides additional reason for Meg and Tom's relocation. Once his parents are reestablished in London, he is – quite literally – killed off. Reg, Jack, and Bill exist only to provide Louise, Edith, and Mary Anne with reasons to hate Olivia.

It wasn't until I'd finished the novel that I read this in the jacket copy: "The Darling Illusion is not a thriller or detective story, but a penetrating novel of character."

A bold claim, it is both true and false.

It's true that The Darling Illusion is not a thriller or detective story; Inspector of Detectives John Sims and coroner Jordan Plant are nowhere to be found after the eighth page. It is not true that The Darling Illusion is a penetrating novel of character. Of its population, only Meg, Edith, and Mary Anne live. This is an unusual novel in that its protagonist, Olivia, exists as little more than a sketch; she's not nearly so realized as the secondary female characters. In this lies the novel's great flaw. Reg, Jack, and Bill all fall in love with Olivia, but the reader will be hard pressed to understand.

Midway through the novel, the omniscient narrator shares this about Bill's feelings for Olivia: "He loved her, but didn't like her."

I've never quite understood how that works.

I didn't love her, I didn't like her, and I didn't hate her; she never seemed real. It's no wonder then that Louise, Edith, and Mary Anne didn't kill Olivia.

I spoil little in revealing that her death can be blamed on a mouse.

I'll leave the rest to your imagination.


The lines come from Roberts' "The Tantramar Revisited," first published in 1883.

Query: In the years after the war, would Olivia have been able to fly into Canada with a loaded revolver?

The novel's final page hinges on the answer.

About the author:

In fact, The Darling Illusion was the author's third novel, following Life Begins for Father (London: Hutchinson, 1939) and Mine Own Content (1952).

Object: A slim hardcover featuring mustard-coloured boards. The jacket illustration is uncredited. I think the artist captured something of Olivia, a woman whom Dr Plant describes as a woman who "could give the impression of beauty."

My copy was purchased for nine American dollars from an Australian bookseller in mid-March. It arrived two weeks ago. As you might imagine, I'd pretty much given up.

It features this book trade label:

Access: Davies' The Darling Illusion enjoyed only one printing. There was a McClelland & Stewart edition, but I've never seen it. Copies of the novel can be found at Library and Archives Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, and nine of our university libraries. Serving the city in which the author lived, the Windsor Public Library holds none of Scott's novels, though it does have Beyond All Recompense: The Story of the Honourable Profession of Nursing in Windsor (1954), a booklet she wrote for the Windsor Centennial Festival.

Three copies of The Darling Illusion are currently listed for sale online, the least expensive – ten Australian dollars – being in "Good+" condition. Were I to revisit my March purchase, I'd be tempted by the American bookseller offering The Darling Illusion (M&S edition) and her subsequent novel, Return to Today (Peter Davies edition), for forty-four American dollars.
My thanks to Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow for bringing Margerie Scott to my attention. His writing on the author can be found in this post.
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